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Thought of the day: tagging email
A popular trend in the online world is tagging. At sites like LiveJournal, Flickr and you can tag your posts, photos, bookmarks, etc with keywords. The ability to share tags and browse by tags gives rise to social tagging, and with scale, useful metadata. This has been such a big thing that the term Folksonomy was coined. In a presentation titled Ontology is Overrated, Clay Shirky made this remark listen about people who tag bookmarks with "To Read":

The cataloger looks at this tag in horror - this is context dependent and temporary! Well, so was East Germany!

Why can't I tag my email?

I can move emails into different folders, but then I have to remember which folder to go to when I want something.

I can save a search as a virtual folder, but it's hard to catch everything without human discretion. An email about rehearsals might not contain the word Hartwell at all, but I still want to see it in my "Hartwell" view/folder/search/category.

If we could tag emails, we could add information that would aid findability later on. I reckon we'll see tagging come to email in some form this year. If not to stand-alone email clients, then to web-based services like Gmail.

In Opera, you can create "views", which is a start: you can place a message in a view without taking it out of your main Inbox. But having to create views first means less flexibility than being able to add tags freely. Plus, it doesn't play well with IMAP, and I need to have access to my email (and tags if I had them) from multiple locations.

What do you think? Would you like the option to tag emails as you read them?
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My god thats a great idea! For work especially: if I could tag things as "hardware order" but also as "from January" and "X sales rep" then it would make finding stuff in the mess my Outlook *shudder* has become so much easier.

I imagine Google could easily do this with gmail (and maybe are planning on it? Who knows)
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The key is to make it really easy, so a good implementation is a must.

Until sites like Flickr came along, no one would have thought of tagging email. "It's a one line email with a twelve line signature - why would I spend time typing in words and commas?"

But has addressed that problem by using auto-completion and letting you select from your popular tags, which are shown with changing size/colour/emphasis to highlight the most used ones.

So here are the features we'd need:
  • Can tag multiple messages at once.
  • A handful of your most used tags to click on.
  • A text box where you can type in tags.
  • Auto-completion and/or suggested tags based on what you're typing.
  • The ability to automatically apply tags using filters/rules.
  • Tags stored in indexes to make searching and browsing by tag fast.
  • The ability to browse (as opposed to search) by tag. Sort tags by frequency of use, recency of use or alphabetically, then select one to see all matching messages.
  • Email clients could also get fancy and apply some complex algorithms that analyse each message and suggest tags based on their content. For example, it might notice that I've tagged other messages from Colin with "theatre" and suggest the tag for me.
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I looked around and found someone else seeking email tags (and I'm sure there'll be many more already thinking about it).

Saving the link here for future reference, along with the comment I left on his blog entry, which was:

I knew I wouldn't be the only one wanting the ability to tag emails. Earlier today I was lamenting that I can't tag my email, then I found this blog post through a search for email tags.

A few thoughts to add:

Mark mentions Outlook Categories. They are not tags. Categories you have to set up, then select from a list. Tagging allows you to type text freely. Now, for some, a dozen categories will do. Others will use a much broader set of tags and need the implementation to work equally well with 200 different tags.

I expect we'll see a web based email service like Gmail offering tags before any stand-alone client brings out a decent implementation. A service like Gmail can just index tags in their own way without having to interact with the outside world.

Next some desktop clients will follow suit. Anyone from Opera or Mozilla up for a challenge? As with web-based services, these implementations will probably index tags locally, which leaves out those of use who use IMAP. Personally I'd love to see tagging work interoperably between clients and servers. I store my mail on a server and use IMAP to access it from several clients like Opera, MacOS Mail, Horde IMP (web-based).

But IMAP would be tricky. Many IMAP servers store email in plain text files. If tags are going to be stored within the email header, I expect browsing emails by tag to be sluggish at best. I can't imagine it working well unless there is an index of tags.

There's also the question of how your IMAP clients find out about new tags. Scenario: I check my email at work. I've already read this message about the next rehearsal, but now I tag it with "theatre" for later reference. Then I go home and check my email again. Only the new messages are retrieved; I have already got the rehearsal one, but my home machine doesn't know about the new tag. I don't want to download all my mail again, but I do want a way to update my tags index by syncing with a remote server.
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tagging a la stikkits

My very limited experience with tagging consists of just beginning stikkits dot com and I am excited because it streamlines my getting things done. Yes, I would like very much to tag my email and I have many kinds: Outlook 2003 with Exchange 2003 server, Gmail, cable ISP, yahoo, MSN, the works. I also like the (thunder)bird with Mozilla. I would like to keep up with the latest on tagging, since my job involves providing tech support at a graduate school.
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